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Scientists Unlock a Key Cognitive Ability of Monkeys

May 29, 2017 11:53 AM EDT
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The team of scientists discovered that the animals may have even evolved the neutral circuitry behind the human’s “theory of mind”, also known as the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, desires, intentions and behavior.
(Photo : Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

Monkeys show evidence of having developed the parts of the brain dedicated to analyzing social interactions. The new information - aside from offering a peek at monkey's brain activity - can also help scientists understand the origins of human's social cognition.

According to a report from Rockefeller University, Winrich Freiwald and Julia Sliwa found areas in the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys that analyze social interactions. The team of scientists discovered that the animals may have even evolved the neutral circuitry behind the human's "theory of mind", also known as the ability to understand another person's thoughts, desires, intentions and behavior.

The research involved using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to recognize the parts of monkeys' brains that become active with different kinds of videos. The videos included inanimate objects interacting physically such as colliding, macaques interacting with the objects, and macaques interacting with other macaques.

Though the fMRI data, the team was able to determine the areas of their brain that lit up during physical or social interactions.

One of the breakthroughs was with the specialized brain cells called mirror neuron system, which is also found in the human brain. Its known to respond when an animal performs an action or sees another animal enacting the same action, but this new study also discovered it responds when the animals watch their fellow animals interacting socially and even watching objects colliding with other objects.

This suggests that the mirror neuron system could be a bigger factor in understanding interactions than initially believed.

There are more areas of the brain that was also stimulated in response to social interactions. The scientists even found a part of the network that responded exclusively to social interactions, completely unresponsive in its absence. The special network is found in the same areas of the brian related with human's theory of mind, which is only activated upon reflection of the thoughts of other people.

The study was published in the journal Science Magazine.

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